• Otter Views: Saint Junipero with an asterisk?

    Easter Sunday’s Native American protest at Carmel Mission has me pondering sainthood and its ramifications. While Father Junipero Serra’s canonization is assured with or without the requisite two miracles, a saintly asterisk may be warranted: something like (*missions may have abetted genocide).

    History is of course written by the winners. Long before Father Serra’s time, Spanish conquistadors, priests and colonists were the winners in this part of the New World. Their histories record heroic David-and-Goliath conquests of savage native armies; conquests achieved by “fire and sword” and by the grace of the one true God.


    All this conquest happened a century before the Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek peered through his microscope and discovered bacteria swarming in a drop of pond water. The conquistadors’ armored horses and steel swords vanquished their first native foes, but Old World bacteria killed everybody else.

    As elsewhere in previously “undiscovered” lands, the native societies of the Americas had no immunity to the viruses and bacteria that accompanied the discoverers. From Columbus onward, poxes, measles and venereal diseases to which Europeans had long grown immune slew up to 95 percent of the native peoples contacted.

    Because the microbial sources of pestilence remained unknown to both conquerors and vanquished, other rationales were pressed into service. The natives were dying because they were sinful, pagan, backward or weak; because their gods were no match for the Christian god, and because they had not been brought to the one true faith.

    Enter the missionaries.

    Everywhere European explorers sailed – to Africa, the Americas, China, the East and West Indies and throughout the Pacific – Christian missionaries soon followed. Their motives were as varied as the mother countries that sent them out. Many honestly sought to save heathen souls; others to found schools, churches and hospitals that would serve both the converts and the colonists to come.

    Still other missionaries were determined to inculcate the bedrock values of their faiths. In Hawaii it is said the mercantile Calvinist missionaries sent from New England “came to do good, and they did very, very well.” Africans have a similar saying. “When the missionaries came, we had the land and they had the Bible. Pretty soon, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

    But however varied their charters, many missionaries who followed European explorers to new lands had one thing in common. They arrived amid genocidal-scale pestilence to which they and their descendants were miraculously immune.

    The winners who wrote the histories of the colonial era generally cast the missionaries in a favorable light. They endured great suffering and privation to minister to the natives; they tended to the sick and comforted the dying; they brought horses, higher learning, metallurgy and western engineering to places that had not even seen the wheel.

    From the winners’ perspective, Junipero Serra fits that bill admirably. While crossing Mexico and then establishing the missions of Alta California, he walked hundreds of punishing miles and rode hundreds more. In the approved narrative, his missions provided sustenance, shelter and salvation for thousands of Native Americans.

    The California missions also taught the skills necessary for life in the new colonial economy: large animal husbandry, field crop science, viticulture, carpentry, masonry, Spanish, math, science and Latin. Mission baptisms, marriages and christenings brought once-benighted natives into the divine light of Christ’s eternal love. Surely all that warrants sainthood.

    Of the missions Father Serra founded, only one still has its original footprint, but it’s an impressive one. Visitors to the San Antonio de Padua mission near King City can see where olive oil was pressed, where grain was milled, where grapes were grown, and where irrigation flumes ran water to distant crops. Explanatory signs tell a heart-warming story of padres and natives laboring shoulder to shoulder.

    Walk farther from the church, though, and you’ll find a large, seemingly empty enclosure surrounded by walls of stacked stone. The signage there is simpler: “Indian Cemetery.” No headstones mark the graves; no plaques preserve any names. Absent other information, the impression is that many people perished in a short time and were buried anonymously in what Europeans called a “potter’s field.”

    The Native Americans gathered at Carmel Mission Sunday told reporters their ancestors, once brought into the mission compounds, were not allowed to leave. It seems possible, if not politic, to infer that their confinement among the missionaries and their poxy livestock may have helped fill those nameless walled graveyards.

    If left to pursue their itinerant fishing and gathering lifestyles, would California’s Native Americans have had a better shot at survival than they did in the missions? It’s academic. The 49ers were coming, and after them, 38 million more of us.

    That said, I still think Saint Junipero gets an asterisk.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 10, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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